By Gary Wallin
For the Deseret News
My story takes place in Afghanistan during Christmas 2004.
I had been in country almost nine months and our unit was proving to the 25th Infantry Division that we were far from the normal military National Guard unit. We Utahns are a different bunch to begin with and to have our unit composed of more than 75 percent LDS men and women certainly added to that perception.
We were Mormons in a Muslim country and deep down we knew that we wanted to do something other than fly and hunt down the bad guy Taliban. Generally, our people worked shifts 24/7.
There was no vacation and our time off was limited to just the local area inside Bagram Air Base. They would not let us venture outside of the base fence because it was just too dangerous. Even though we were on a secure coalition base, we wore our weapons everywhere we went. We were armed to the teeth. When we flew anywhere, our helicopters were armed to the max, too, and we were always looking for the bad guys.
Our mission was to support the ground soldiers and hunt out the Taliban, escort coalition helicopters all over the country, and protect our VIPs who were always coming to visit the war effort. That was a pretty demanding mission in and of itself, but being who we were we knew there was more things we could and should be doing as an organization.
On a daily basis we noticed the hundreds and hundreds of local nationals coming to the fence needing medical attention. As we inquired about the situation, we found out that our friends — the Egyptians and the South Koreans — had medical clinics to help these needy people. We made friends with them and they let us begin to hand out humanitarian aid to them.
Back in the States, our wives, friends, and just plain good people collected and sent us boxes and boxes of stuff. This stuff consisted of school supplies, clothes, shoes, blankets, food, books, etc. Everything you could imagine.
The project started small and soon it got bigger and bigger. The generous people of Utah, Hawaii, and other places in the U.S. sent us so much stuff we couldn’t pass it out fast enough. We decided to go bigger so we talked to our commanders and through much persuasion we convinced them to let us adopt two orphanages and outlying villages to donate our humanitarian aid.
We were an attack helicopter outfit and had access to other helicopter assets located on the base. As it turned out we used Army helicopters, National Guard helicopters, and Marine helicopters to transport all this stuff to our villages.
We made contact with the orphanages and village elders to let them know of our plans. It took us months to get it all approved, organized, and all safety concerns worked out.
We took our stuff to the two orphanages with the help of some active Army engineer ground units and our own unit grown soldiers. Every time we delivered the stuff we made great friends and helped hundreds of children. But getting to the villages took more effort.
We got to the village of Jedgalek in the early fall of 2004. Jedgalek was about 150 miles southwest of Bagram Air Base near the Pakistan border in an area known to have lots of bad guys. We used Army Chinook helicopters to haul the goods and soldiers and used Apache helicopters and Air Force A-10 aircraft to give us air protection.
Needless to say our first visit was a bit nerve-wracking because we didn’t know what to expect and what dangers were there. But the village elders and the mullahs (religious clerics) seemed to like what we did for them and invited us back. We ended up taking missions to them almost 15 more times during the rest of the year.
It was getting close to Christmas 2004. We had been to Jedgalek many times and had made lots of friends, but we wanted to do more. We decided to orchestrate the largest military air assault up to that point in the war and to not fire one shot.
And we planned it for Christmas Eve.
The plan was to show the village what a Christian Christmas was by giving the children Christmas presents, and in return the village elders promised to show us Afghan culture and feed us soldiers an Afghan meal.
What an opportunity.
We made 400 bags of gifts for the children. We also gave blankets, coats, and food to the villagers. We loaded 12,500 pounds of goods in a van and slung it beneath a Chinook helicopter to the village. We also transported over 400 coalition soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to the village via Chinook helicopter.
It was a Christmas Eve I will never forget.
I was “voluntold” to be Santa Claus. I wore my military uniform with weapon and flack vest, but I also wore a ratty old gray fuzzy beard and my Santa hat. I sat at the end of a line of soldiers and wished every child that came by a “Merry Christmas.”
Many couldn't speak English, but they sure tried. And when they said “Merry Christmas” back to me, our soldiers just cheered and cheered. I shook their hands and gave them their bag of presents. I shook over 400 of the grubbiest, dirtiest, roughest, stickiest, little hands and loved every minute of it. The smiles, giggles, and grins of the children made me melt.
The village men danced traditional Afghan dances for us. (There were no women around and women do not mingle and dance with men ever.) They also fixed us huge vats of chicken and vegetables Afghan style (most of the food was donated by us). It was pretty good stuff none the less. But the fact that we were at war and we were celebrating Christmas in a Muslim country was so special for me.
I was with my soldier brothers and sisters doing good for some very poor people and they loved it. We made friends for life, not only among ourselves as soldiers, but also with these wonderful people we came to serve. We ended the day with smiles, handshakes, and hugs. We brought all our soldiers, helicopters, and other equipment back to Bagram Air Base safe and sound. We were exhausted and exhilarated all at the same time.
There was no time to rest though because the very next day, Christmas Day, I was assigned to escort and provided armed helicopter security to Chinook helicopters loaded from tip to tail with yellow bags of mail destined for our soldiers.
Wow, what a mission.
I watched our soldiers at five firebases jump up and down for joy knowing that they were getting Christmas mail delivered to them. These guys are on the front lines doing the dirty work of the war and many times they don’t see mail for weeks on end. What an honor to serve our fellow soldiers by ensuring the safety of the Chinook helicopters getting that important Christmas mail to them.
I ended up flying almost 12 hours that Christmas Day, stopping only for fuel and to deliver Christmas to our soldiers. What an honor.
What a way to spend Christmas delivering humanitarian aid to poor people in a war torn village and then to turn around and deliver mail to our soldiers the very next day.
It was a Christmas season, half a world away from my family, I will never ever forget.